We’ve known for a while that Facebook’s abuse of power is out of control. But a recent New York Times investigation revealed that the organization’s leaders have stooped to a new low:
Among other things, Facebook Vice President Joel Kaplan hired a notorious GOP public-relations firm to push far-right conspiracy theories to smear racial-justice group Color Of Change and others.
It’s clear that Facebook engaged in this effort to stop Color Of Change from asking hard questions about how the company is harming its users and this nation’s democracy. Facebook also attempted to smear critics at groups like Demand Progress and the Open Markets Institute.
A hateful strategy
But the investigation reveals something even deeper: Some leaders at Facebook — a company that’s drawn lawmakers’ scrutiny for its role in fueling the fires of hate, state surveillance and even genocide — have no problem taking pages from the White-supremacist playbook to further their goals.
The specific lie driving Facebook’s campaign was that Color Of Change was under the control of billionaire George Soros, head of the Open Society Foundations (a funder of Free Press). Far-right groups frequently demonize Soros, who recently received a pipe bomb at his residence. As this particular smear campaign unfolded, Color Of Change experienced an uptick in death threats.
There’s no denying the anti-Semitism and racism in Facebook’s strategy. Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson described it this way in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg:
“No matter how innocuously you may choose to represent it publicly, pushing the Jewish 'puppet masters' trope was intentional. It is ripped from a playbook centuries in the making and directly linked to attempts to undermine the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It also has very real and deadly consequences, something that should have been made all too clear to you with the tragic shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue by an anti-Soros conspiracy theorist.”
Too much power, too little integrity
The 2016 U.S. presidential election showed us just how dangerous Facebook’s reach has become. Russian actors reportedly used the platform, and others, to influence the election outcome — in part by impersonating Black activists.
And advocates at Color Of Change, the Center for Media Justice, Free Press and many other groups have long pushed Facebook to address a variety of issues on its platform, including recruitment for violent hate groups, law-enforcement spying on activists, abuse of private user data, and its own removals of lawful speech by activists of color.
The New York Times report deepens what we already knew: Facebook has an outsized hold on the flow of ideas in our society — and a crisis of morality in its boardroom.